Manfrotto’s Magic Arm lets you place your lens right where you want it and get sharp shots from perspectives that otherwise would be difficult to achieve.
Tripods are one of those basic parts of nature photography that we often take for granted, yet a quality tripod is a key part of any outdoor photographer’s toolkit. A good tripod will make even the most inexpensive lens outperform the most expensive handheld lens, and such a tripod will make every lens work at its best. Photographers have a lot of excellent tripod choices on the market today. I recently had the chance to take three very different tripods into the field and see what they meant to my workflow. There are definitely other good tripods on the market, but my back isn’t strong enough to take all of them into the field!
With that in mind, this article isn’t intended to be a roundup or buyer’s guide of all the brands and models available, but rather a field guide to the various ways that a tripod can be put to use and how tripods can be made more nimble or adaptable to the terrain by making use of their inherent dexterity or with the addition of supportive accessories. A tripod is a sizable piece of gear to carry to a location, but adding an accessory or two may not add much to overall weight, while adding greatly to the types of photographs that you can make.
Once your tripod is on sure footing, a ballhead makes it much easier to fine-tune your framing—without needing to move the tripod again. Another nice tripod feature is a built-in level to help you position your camera quickly and accurately.
Affordable, Light And Practical The Adorama Flashpoint F1328 is an affordable, heavy-duty carbon-fiber tripod. Carbon fiber is a great way for the outdoor photographer to go because of its weight. Yes, you’ll spend a little more for such a tripod, but it’s a worthwhile investment. It’s fun to watch participants in my workshops who use heavier, metal tripods pick up a fellow student’s carbon-fiber model. Their eyes widen and almost always I hear “Wow!”
That’s exactly what one would do with this tripod. It’s good-sized, ready to support any camera and lens, and someone who didn’t know would think it would be heavy. But the Flashpoint F1328 weighs just four pounds, making it a comfortable trail companion. It extends to 63 inches, easy to use by even tall photographers, yet its four-section legs collapse the tripod to a carrying size of under two feet. That’s also a very packable size for travel. In addition, the legs can be splayed to allow a very low camera height as needed.
When extended, the tripod is solid and rigid. Large, knurled rings make it easy to set up. I also like the fact that the legs don’t turn as these rings are loosened or tightened, which makes it easy to set up and take down as you can loosen all the rings at once and extend the legs, then tighten. Or you can loosen all and collapse the legs, then tighten all at once. For anyone who has used a tripod with knurled locking rings that have rotating legs, you know what a great feature this is.
Adorama’s Flashpoint F1328 carbon-fiber tripod is very light, yet can support about 24 pounds of camera and lens. Switch from rubber pads to ground spikes when you need to dig into the terrain for extra stability. The center column includes a hook for hanging weight and can be separated for low-to-the-ground shooting.
The lightweight FPTH3 magnesium-alloy head that comes with the Flashpoint F1328 balances the tripod nicely, weighing only one pound, and works fine for standard photography. It comes with a standard-size quick-release plate and includes multi-tensioning knobs and a base numbered for panoramic shooting. Estimated Street Price: $299.95 (legs only); $74.95 (F-3 Ballhead). Flexible Shooting In Tough Terrain
The Giottos MT8361 carbon-fiber tripod takes a unique approach to camera support. This unit allows you to extend the center column out of the center tripod tube and then angle that column as a side arm to put the camera into supported positions that would otherwise be difficult to do. Setting up among a lot of rocks for a close-up, for example, is easy because you can change the angles of the legs as needed to adapt to conditions, plus you then can position the camera easily with the center column/side arm.
I could have used this tripod earlier this year when I was trying to photograph some amazing lichens on rocks in Morro Bay, California. My back hurt from trying to get in position, and my tripod never did give me a satisfactory angle for the camera. Yet I had to use a tripod because the light and a small ƒ-stop meant a long exposure. With both its flexible center column position and adaptable legs, the MT8361 has a remarkable capability for dealing solidly with any challenge the terrain may provide.
The unique design of the Giottos MT8361’s center column lets you hoist your camera into positions that otherwise would be unwieldy, so you can get up close to natural subjects without trampling them under foot.
The tripod is lightweight at five pounds and has three-section legs. Collapsed, it’s 27 inches, while fully extended it reaches 64 inches. While all the contortions this camera could go through make it look complicated, I found it easy to use after a couple of setups. You just have to get used to how the center column controls work, which are compactly collected at the top of the tripod center column tube.
The center column supports a camera and moderate-sized lens well (I wouldn’t try it with a heavy telephoto), though you’ll need a cable release or use the self-timer to minimize vibrations. The tripod does an amazing job in supporting a camera so far from the legs. Estimated Street Price: $365.